London People: 100 Years Ago: ‘King of Chefs’ Auguste Escoffier Retires

The great French chef Auguste Escoffier retired 100 years ago this month from the Carlton Hotel in the Haymarket. He was the radical revolutionary cook who shook up the whole restaurant business and dragged it into the modern era. Along the way, he formed an unlikely friendship with a sharp London girl, who was no mean cook herself. Soul City Wanderer delivers this bitesize takeaway.

Auguste Escoffier started his cooking career as a young kitchen assistant in Nice in the south of France. He rose to become a saucier at the prestigious Petit Moulin restaurant in Paris. Unfortunately, the Franco-Prussian war interrupted the rise of his talents, and he was drafted into the French army. At one point he was forced to cook horse meat for the troops. He was then captured by opposing forces, and as a prisoner-of-war, he had to be particularly inventive with the merest scraps of food. After the conflict, however, he returned triumphantly to his former Parisian restaurant as head chef.

Eventually, Escoffier made his way to London to find fame at the Savoy Hotel owned by Richard D’Oyly Carte and managed by Cesar Ritz. He brought with him new ideas, in particular, the fixed price three-course menu, which went onto revolutionise the way Londoners would eat out.

While in London he met the famous cockney cook Rosa Lewis. She was the owner of the Cavendish Hotel in the St James’s area of London during the Edwardian and interwar periods. Born in East London, through sheer endeavour she worked her way up through the service industry to become one of the most renowned chefs in the capital. Her clients numbered some of the very highest in high society, including royalty. The 1970s television series The Duchess of Duke Street was based on her life.

Escoffier and Lewis became great pals, and often socialised together in London. Escoffier later went onto become head chef at the Carlton Hotel on the Haymarket where he worked until his retirement in July 1920 at the age of 73. His other great London legacy is the cookery college he helped to found in St Vincent’s Square, Westminster, which still operates to this day.

For more on these two great cooks, Soul City Wanderer recommends The Duchess of Jermyn Street by Daphne Fielding (Futura, 1964), and Escoffier, King of Chefs by Kenneth James (Hambledon, 2006). What makes the latter so richly readable is that every second chapter is an interlude about food, ingredients or recipes, and Escoffier’s influence on them. It has you feeling hungrier with every turn of the page. Delicious!

Published by Soul City Wanderer

Soul City Wanderer is the alias of London journalist and author Frank Molloy, a writer on the city’s history and culture. Born south of the river, he has an MA in London history (Birkbeck) and lectures at various institutions including the Museum of London and the National Portrait Gallery. He is also a fully-qualified Blue Badge Guide (MITG), Westminster Guide and City of London Guide.

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